Offenbacher’s offers winning mix in nation’s capitol
By Kristine Ellis -- Casual Living, 8/1/2009 12:00:00 AM
Imagine having to call Gen. Colin Powell to tell him that his outdoor furniture wasn’t going to be delivered on time. That happened to an Offenbacher’s customer service rep once when the delivery truck broke down.
“The gentleman was so nervous that he actually stood up and saluted as he spoke into the phone,” said Alpana Offenbacher, who owns the company with her husband, Karl.
Not surprisingly, Powell was very understanding about the situation and happy with his furniture when he finally received it.
But such is the nature of doing business within the Beltway.
Over its many years in business, Offenbacher’s has delivered outdoor furniture to a wealth of government officials and foreign dignitaries as well as to the White House and the Vice President’s residence. Poor customer service is not an option.
“Just about everybody in the Washington, D.C., area knows Offenbacher’s as a quality retailer with good products, good inventory and good customer service,” Alpana said. “When people hear our name, their reaction is 'Oh, the patio people.’”
That brand awareness grew through the years as the Offenbachers added stores and categories.
They started their company in 1962 as a pool management business then began to add outdoor furniture in the early 1970s. Today, about 60% of the business is outdoor furniture, umbrellas and cushions. Fireplace, which was added as a category about 20 years ago, accounts for just under 14%, while the grill, spa, recreation (primarily billiards) and Christmas categories range from 3-5%.
“We try and put all of the components together for a winning combination, and when people come in and get excited by what we have, that makes us excited to keep going,” Karl Offenbacher said.
Although Alpana would love to bring in more contemporary lines and “wow” products, Offenbacher’s customer base prefers a more traditional look in keeping with the history of the region. Cast aluminum, therefore, has been the company’s largest category for quite some time, offering the ornate detail that customers want.
All categories are kept on the floor year-round, and although there is a bit of a difference in the demographics of the various store locations, for the most part product mix is standard throughout.
Offenbacher’s moved out of the D.C. area about 10 years ago when it opened a store in Baltimore. Its newest location, which opened last year, is also outside the area in Fredericksburg, Va.
“We are gradually closing our smaller stores to open larger showrooms,” Karl said. “Our Rockville, Md., store for instance has moved three times since we started, each time to a larger location.”
Its largest location, now in Fairfax, Va., is at 26,000 square feet.
Like other specialty dealers, the Offenbachers now are more concerned with maintaining the status quo than planning future expansions. Thanks to the large government workforce, the regional economy hasn’t been hit as hard as many areas of the country. Still, they have had to adjust to the reluctance among consumers to open their wallets.
“People are sprucing up what they have with a new umbrella or new cushions rather than buying new furniture, so they are spending but cautiously,” Alpana said. “Sales aren’t going through the roof but they are up some.”
Offenbacher’s had unusually high inventory carryover for 2009, which significantly affected its purchasing for the season.
“The sales pattern changed last year, and I don’t see it turning around yet,” Karl said, adding they are hopeful it will pick up in 2010.
The tight market forced Offenbacher’s to not hire as many part-time people for the season, but its employee base of 55 remains stable. Much of the staff has been with the company for more than 20 years, a continuity helped by having a range of categories.
Karl and Alpana have stepped out of the day-to-day operations of the showrooms, but meet frequently with their managers to stay informed.
They are pleased with the support they’ve received from their suppliers, particularly this year. Still, Alpana would like to see manufacturers in the industry become what she would consider to be much more savvy in their use of technology —both in information management as well as in their Internet sales policies.
“I don’t think that the honor system works on the Internet,” she said. “People want to make money and will sell the product for whatever they can get, so the brick-and-mortar stores suffer. We can’t compete with Direct Buy or e-tailers. I understand that the manufacturers have to sell their products, but the playing field isn’t level.”
Offenbacher’s is proactive in using its Web site to promote its products and services.
Alpana also is planning to launch a social media campaign once the economy improves incorporating Twitter, Facebook and other venues.
“If we don’t go into that media, I think we are doing ourselves a big disservice,” she said. “Just about everyone lives on their Blackberrys here.”
Although social media will also help them target a younger generation, that isn’t a major concern for the couple.
“We’ve been here long enough that they’ve heard about us from their grandparents,” Karl said.